I am now in my second year as a faculty member at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology. Prior to this, I’ve spent the last 16 years of my life doing primarily two things: 1) attending three different universities, and; 2) working for local churches in a variety of capacities. You would think that after that amount of time invested in both theological higher education and church service, I would have learned quite a bit about the local church. Yet, this is anything but the case and not because the curriculum of my seminary lacked adequate focus on ecclesiology. Rather, teaching at a Christian university has opened up an amazing new curriculum for me and afforded me a unique and fresh vista from which to view the Church and learn from one of her most precious treasures – young people – and in this case, undergraduate students.
I would like to share some of the greatest lessons this new curriculum has taught me as I seek to teach undergraduates.
Failing the Exam
The Exam Questions
1. Where are 18-25 year old young people being discipled?
2. Where are they learning to share their faith?
3. Where are they entering into accountability?
4. Where are they experiencing genuine, authentic relationships?
5. Where are they experiencing help in their sins by having people carry their burdens as Gal 6.1-2 instructs?
Sadly, from my perspective, the answer to each of these questions far too often is not “the Church.”
- As a professor I have done more pastoral ministry than I have ever done as a pastor. This may seem incredibly counter-intuitive, but reflects a number of realities and deficiencies that as a church we really need to get serious about.
Dr Donna Theonnes, professor in Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute and wife of my Biblical and Theological Studies colleague Dr Eric Theonnes, once remarked that every undergraduate is two questions away from tears. My experience as a professor has so far confirmed her profound observation in ways that I never knew possible. I simply cannot believe some of the issues that my students either are currently in the midst of or have come out of. In my class on the Pentateuch I require my students to write an end of the semester paper reflecting on what theme or topic found in the Pentateuch most impacted their lives in the course of working through the first five books of the Bible. As I read some of these, I have at times had to simply stop for a moment and collect myself as I sit in shocked disbelief at the trials, tragedies, and challenges that my students are facing or have faced. Some are simply unimaginable.
The point is that the young people in our churches are broken. They seek to live and grow in Christ in a world that is ever more complex and challenging by the day. They are longing to be led, to be mentored, and to be helped into maturity.
- As a result of this, I have a crowd of students whom I just can’t spend enough time with. This is not because I’m all that great or worthy to be followed, but rather they just cannot go anywhere else. For many of them I represent the only accessible, mature Christian in their lives. Whenever I am in the midst of giving advice about a relationship, how best to deal with one’s parents, or how to get help with depression, I routinely make it a point to ask if they have a church home with a small group that they are a part of. To this question they will without fail respond in one of three ways, and these I put in order of frequency: 1) they have turned to someone within the church, either a pastor or older person, and have been brushed aside; 2) they go to church regularly but do not feel as if they have anyone to turn to there; or finally; 3) they don’t go to church.
Lest you think there is anything magnetic about myself, let me be quick to add that I am not the only Biblical and Theological Studies professor to have this experience. In fact, I often note how each of my colleagues has must deal with this same phenomena.
- Upon reading this it may seem as though I sound as if I am complaining about all of my students’ troubles and issues that I have to deal with. However, this is anything but the case. I simply LOVE this aspect of my job and relish any time I get to know and minister to my students.
As a professor, the rub for me is not whether or not I do these things, but rather SHOULD I be doing these things? In one sense the answer is a resounding YES. When someone is in need or going through various trials, Christian love demands that one do what they can for a brother or sister in need. However, at the same time Biola University, despite having Christ at the very core of everything that we do, cannot, and indeed, SHOULD NOT fulfill the role that the church should play in the lives of our students. I cannot help but think that part of the issue here is that my undergraduates would feel less compelled to go to professors at their university instead of a local body of believers if they felt the support and discipleship that the think they will find at their university (a point I will return to momentarily).
The issues I’m raising here carry implications that go beyond the Church. For example, what I am experiencing as a professor in regard to my students begs the question: What should be the job of Christian universities and seminaries? Christian universities like Biola do a number of terrific things that prepare students for a life of following Christ that extends beyond the core competencies of each respective academic discipline. In fact the mission statement of Biola university states this very thing:
The mission of Biola University is biblically centered education, scholarship and service—equipping men and women in mind and character to impact the world for the Lord Jesus Christ.
Here at Biola, we intentionally go beyond filling heads with knowledge. This is part of our mission and part of what we are about at our core. Despite this, we at Biola cannot ever approach, replace, or replicate the Church and her part in the plan of God in the world. Biola can NEVER BE CHRIST’S BRIDE. My colleague, Dr Ken Berding, has recently written a wonderful blog post speaking to this very thing.
Yet Christian universities and seminaries across the country (and globe) offer classes in evangelism, spiritual formation, and discipleship – all ‘topics’ where the Church has typically been the central repository for such things. What’s more is that there is also quite a bit of debate regarding how big of a part technology in the form of on-line classes and distance learning should play in a Christian university or seminary because of the lack of ‘face to face interaction’ and ‘mentoring’ inherent with a fully on-line course experience. I bring this point up to simply say that it is not only the Church that has to wrestle through some of the issues at hand here. If we are all in agreement that a Christian university or seminary is not the Church, then how much of the function of the Church should such an academic institution be trafficking in? What are those classes appropriate for academia and which are those should be reserved for the Church in the context of a local body of believers?
On the one hand we would affirm that learning happens best in the context of relationship and so the learning that takes place at a Christian university or seminary will naturally entail at least a modicum of discipleship, mentoring, and formation. The point I would like to stress and the one that is germane to the discussion at hand is that if an academic institution, albeit a Christian one, is the sole place where a young person age 18-25 is experiencing these things, something is sorely amiss. This though, sadly, is the typical experience of the majority of my students.
What seems to be happening from my perspective is that in fulfilling our mission as a Christian university our students get a taste of what it is to have a mature, Christian man or woman speak truth into their lives over an extended period of time, and they simply cannot get enough.
But the question remains, why is this the case for our undergraduate students? Certainly many of them come from churches with youth groups or college groups, but yet these still do not seem to be able to scratch the itch, as it were, of our student body.
It is no secret that one of the greatest challenges facing the Church today is the retention of her young people. Lifeway research has recently concluded that 2/3 of all young people who attend church in high school will leave the church between the ages of 18-22. This is a grim statistic, yet based upon my own experience at Biola, I cannot say that I’m surprised.
So, how did we get here?
How We Got Here
At this point we could very easily insert Dr Joe Hellerman’s latest book When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus' Vision for Authentic Christian Community where he sounds the alarm that a Church driven by individual needs over against those of the people of God falls woefully short of God’s design for the Church. There is precious little I could ever add to the masterful work that Dr Hellerman has done in that book and couldn’t recommend it higher. Nevertheless I would like to conclude with a few observations from my own church experience that I think adds to the problem and then offer several potential solutions for consideration.
My hope is that pastors might give some serious thought to these issues and examine how we can make the necessary adjustments to close the relational gap with our 18-25 year old brothers and sisters.
The Pendulum Swing of History
If one were to chart the entire course of Church history since her inception, it develops like great swings of a pendulum as reactions to one movement provide the trajectory for each subsequent movement. While this is true all throughout Church history, it is particularly interesting to consider the last several decades. The evangelical Church in America saw a great number of young people come to Christ in the so-called ‘Jesus movement’ of the mid to late 1970s. This was due in large part to a reaction against both the prevailing secular excesses of the previous era as well as a newfound acceptance of young people ‘as they were’ in certain churches who did not fit well into the mainline denominations.
This great influx of young people into evangelical Churches during the 1970s eventually gave way to the ‘attraction model’ or ‘seeker sensitive’ movement throughout the late 1980s and into the 1990s. This movement was spearheaded by, and effective with, those Baby Boomers who were now by and large beginning careers and had families, along with those who entered the Church in the previous era of the ‘Jesus people.’ Typified by corporate models of church government and administration, the ‘attractional model’ took hold in largely upper-middle class, Caucasian areas and sought to soften the transition from what one would find in the corporate or capitalistic world and that found in the church.
One of the primary means these models used to make inroads into their respective target communities was to put on programs and events, which included the Sunday worship service, to ‘attract’ people to the church in the hope that some would remain and continue attendance. Such an ‘attractional’ model required a newfound emphasis on programs and events marking a shift in the priority of Church programs over against Church relationships. As far as I can tell, this profoundly impacted the following:
The role of the Senior Pastor changed from shepherd and expositor and teacher of God’s Word to CEO, visionary, and manager of systems. Pastoral success began to be measured by growth, both in terms of physical plant and membership, ability to manage a varied staff, and to innovate new programs. It is not altogether uncommon to never meet face to face with one’s senior pastor.
To share a quick personal anecdote, when I had reached a level of my doctoral studies at Oxford when I could finish the writing of my dissertation (thesis) off-site, I began searching for jobs back in the US as an associate or assistant pastor while I finished my doctorate. During the application process, I may as well have been radioactive, for despite having two advanced degrees in Bible, I was virtually unhirable. I remember being rejected for pastoral positions because I hadn’t demonstrated an ability to grow ‘cell groups’ or ‘administrate’ a college group. It struck me as so counter-intuitive that what churches were after was not a guy who knew the Bible and how to teach and preach it with passion and clarity, but rather a guy who could ‘run their programs.’ It seems to me that this is the wrong way to approach ministry.
During this period, the role of the office of the elder, as it is described by Paul in 1 Timothy 3.1-7, changes to what effectively becomes a Board of Directors, the qualifications for inclusion typically being limited to demonstrable success in business or civil structures, seldom being called upon to teach or lead in any spiritual capacity. Instead their role in Church leadership consists of ‘greenlighting’ the requests of the Senior Pastor and taking oversight of the Church budget.
Youth and Children’s Ministries and Hiring Practices
The core of the ‘attractional model/seeker-sensitive model’ was to aim at a certain adult demographic felt to be most easily reached. This meant that adults being assimilated into this structure often had children and therefore paid close attention to what was ‘being offered’ for their kids.
This had two profound effects. The first is that since the overall thrust of the ministry was to focus on adults and especially the Sunday worship ‘experience,’ this meant that the large majority of the personnel budget was devoted to ministries that had adults as their focus. This leads to the second point, namely, that those hired to minister to children and youth tended to be young, inexperienced students or 20-somethings who viewed the position as a training or proving ground to work up to adult ministry.
The result is that despite being statistically the most important demographic in our churches in terms of long term spiritual impact, children and youth often got the smallest budgets and the most inexperienced ministers. As a result, this reinforced the programmatic and event focus of ministry.
A further effect of an overwhelmingly adult focused ministry is the segregation of the family. Upon arrival at church for a Sunday worship ‘experience,’ often times the first step would be to divide the family into separate destinations for college, high school, and elementary aged children. The result is that not only are the children seldom exposed to their parents’ worship, they are also seldom exposed to any segment of older, mature generation of Christians. Their only exposure to this segment of the church would come from those who would be willing to volunteer in these ministries, which would require leaving the ‘adult’ services.
Some Proposed Solutions
1. In the hiring process place a much higher priority on a candidate’s passion and zeal for Christ and their ability to understand and teach God’s Word with clarity and passion above organizational and functional acumen.
2. Take seriously what the statistics are telling us and put your best people in children, youth, and college ministry. Look for people called by God to ministry to these demographic groups rather than simply those looking for a ‘foot in the door’ to ‘greater things.’ Hire people who can tangibly help high school and college students formulate a Christian, Bible centered world-view and who can answer some of the challenges to Christianity they will no doubt be facing as they grow older.
3. Budget according to point number 2 above. If you are going to have a person called to have a career in say, youth ministry, then be willing to pay them and support their ministry so that they could in fact spend their entire lives ministering to youth.
4. Rather than creating programs that flow from the Senior Pastor and must then not only require paid stuff but also the heavy enlistment of adult volunteers, take seriously Paul’s entreaty that God gave saints certain gifts of service in order to train up the saints for work in ministry (Eph 4.11-13).
One of the reasons why the temptation is so great to dedicate the large majority of personnel budget to adult ministry is that programs and structures are installed that are so unwieldy that they require staffed positions to run.
In essence, a Senior Pastor soften enlist the body of saints to help them do his own work or to fulfill his own job description. However, if the pastoral staff were to focus on helping and equipping their flock to do what the flock itself is being called to do, rather than what the Senior Pastor feels called to have the flock do, then less staff is required, and in my opinion, a greater overall impact would result for all involved.
5. Intentionally create opportunities for the mixing of the congregation across demographic lines so that those mature in Christ can spend time with and get to know those less mature and also younger than them.
This will not only allow those more mature and older in our congregations to feel needed and worthy, but it will allow those with the wisdom that can only come from years of walking with Christ to work its way down to the younger generation.
I love it that Moses had this very thing in mind when describing the age at which a Levite was to retire from his physical service in the Tabernacle:
‘The LORD spoke to Moses: “In regard to the Levites: From 25 years old or more, a man enters the service in the work at the tent of meeting. But at 50 years old he is to retire from his service in the work and no longer serve. He may assist his brothers to fulfill responsibilities at the tent of meeting, but he must not do the work. This is how you are to deal with the Levites regarding their duties.”’ (Numbers 8:23–26 HCSB)
Here we see that despite stopping their physical labors, the Levites past the age of retirement were to continue helping, supporting, and giving counsel to those actively engaged in the service of the Tabernacle.
Churches need to work hard to establish mentoring programs that would benefit not only those receiving counsel, but also those giving it.
6. Be looking for opportunities to integrate rather than segregate your flock, especially when it comes to college students and singles. Make them a part of your small group ministry rather than have groups comprised solely of singles or college students as you strive to foster a spirit of unity in diversity rather than a monolith.
7. Take seriously Paul’s qualifications for eldership and then truly share the power of with them. Seek men who have a zeal, passion, and knowledge of Christ independent of their vocation. I long for a day to see an elder board comprised solely of blue collar men who love the Lord, make His Word their delight, and share it with clarity and passion. In addition, choose elders willing to do the work of the ministry. When this is done even less adult staff are required.
8. Finally, make ministry more about relationships than about programs. The people who we are trying to minister today are not short on more ‘stuff’ to do, but they are awfully short on real, authentic relationships. Do hard work not to create more stuff to keep people busy, but rather bring Paul’s vision of the Church as a family to fruition realizing that spiritual growth happens best in community, where we treat each other as a family, looking out for the needs of each member of the flock as if they belonged to our nuclear family.